Monthly Archives: May 2009

moribund /’mɒrɪbʌnd/

It was a sad day in 1975 when Peter Gabriel announced he was leaving Genesis. Some argue that after the completion of their magnum opus, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, there was little else for him to do as lead singer for the band. The next two Gabrieless albums, A Trick of the Tail followed by Wind and Wuthering at least had the distinctive sound of Steve Hackett to carry them through in a recognizable form. But when Hackett left, the rump never really managed to recapture that special 70’s sound.

Gabriel’s first post-Genesis album, the eponymous Peter Gabriel, was a triumphant “coming out” and contained the hit single, Solsbury Hill, which hit the top 20 in the UK and top 70 in the US. The B-side was the oddly named Moribund the Burgermeister, a song about a Middle Ages outbreak of St. Vitus dance, presided over by the local burgermeister, Moribund.

Moribund the Burgermeister

Moribund the Burgermeister

This was, to my recollection, my first encounter with the word moribund, which caught my imagination because it sounded something dark and slow. The word originates from the Latin, mor-i, meaning “to die.” It appears in 16th century French as moribond, and also appears in Spanish as moribundo, and Italian as moribondo.

As an adejctive, one of the first references is in Todd’s Cyclopedia of Anatomy; “The state of the respiration in a moribund person is extremely various,” where it is used to mean in a dying state or at the point of death. By extension, it became useful as a word to describe anything on the point of ending.  In an 1865 edition of the UK’s parliamentary Hansard procedings, the Earl of Derby says, “One of just such a character as might naturally have been expected to be addressed by an aged Minister to a moribund paliament.”

It also makes an appearance as a noun to refer to a person who is in a dying state. Mundy, in 1852, said, “There will be more lawyers than litigants, more medicos that moribunds.”

Id you really want to impress, try using it as a noun formed by the addition of the “-ity” suffix; moribundity. This is sure to cause a few folks to scratch their heads and others to marvel at your lexical skills. Perhaps.

On a return to offer a final musical note, there is a Swedish death metal band called Moribund and a Turkish metal band called Moribund Oblivion. Not only do the band names sound very similar, so do their songs.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology

obstinate /’ɒbstinət/

In a recent performance appraisal, where folks are invited to comment anonymously on what they think of me, someone described me as obstinate. Now here’s a word that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once described as an “irregular verb.” During an old BBC radio program, he offered the conjugation, “I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.”

Another example comes from the BBC’s Yes Minister series where the civil servant, Bernard Wooley says;

“That’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.”

It’s a great party game for the literati who prefer it to things like chugging a beer bong or seeing who can eat the most hot dogs in a minute. Well, maybe before chugging a beer bong or eating hot dogs.

It comes from the Latin obstinat-us, which means determined or stubborn, which is in turn a derivative of obstare, meaning to persist. However, although being persistent and determined could be seen as highly sought-after qualities, the connotation of obstinate has been negative.

Allegory of the 5 Obstinate Monsters

Allegory of the 5 Obstinate Monsters

The OED describes it as “pertinacious or stubborn in adhering to one’s own course; not yielding to argument, persuasion, or entreaty; inflexible, headstrong.” Phew, that’s quite a thing to say about someone!

It has been used as a noun in the 16th century, such as in the wonderful phrase, “Out of the bosome of these heretikes, rebelles, and obstinates.” However, I can’t say I have heard it used as such in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Of course, I ultimately don’t care too much about being called obstinate because my obstinacy is counter-balanced by my arrogance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology, Morphology

heinous /’heɪnəs/

Like most regular middle-class folks, there are times when I like to watch some terrible sex crimes that end in death and/or dismemberment. And as long as this is taking place in my home, it’s perfectly legal.

NBC’s Emmy-award winning show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has been popular with audiences since September 1999, with each season never failing to find new ways of sexually abusing victims in the interest of entertainment.

As the voice over reminds us at the beginning of each, the Special Victims Unit was created to handle such transgressions because “sexually based crimes are the most heinous.”

Defined as hateful, odious, highly criminal or wicked, atrocious, or infamous, heinous comes from the Old French hainos meaning hatred. In Paradise Lost, Milton uses a different spelling in the phrase, “The hainous and despightfull act of Satan done in Paradise,” and uses the superlative form when he writes “These men will suffer the worst and hainousest inconveniences to follow.”

Bill and Ted in danger

Bill and Ted in danger

The word can also be used to mean grave, grievous, or severe, which is slightly tamer than hatred. In the classic movie, Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), on the eve of an important exam, Bill says, “We are in danger of flunking most heinously tomorrow,” using the word (a) in its milder meaning and (b) as an adverb.

Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology, Morphology

chode/choad /’tʃɒd/

"You miserable chode!"

"You miserable chode!"

The role of the military in adding to the English language should never be underestimated. There are three areas in which I suggest it excels; acronyms, euphemisms, and profanities. From ATACS (Army/Airforce Tactical Systems) to ZODIAC (Zone Defense Integrated Active Capability) there’s enough alphabet soup to run the entire kitchen. And how gentle phrases such as “non-operative personnel” and “collateral damage” sound in comparison to “dead soldiers” and “dead civilians.”

But it is in the area of profanity that new words and new meanings can blossom – as is evidenced by a recent query from my son-in-law who is in the army and was recently accused on being “a fucking chode” by one of his superiors. Not knowing what the word meant, he was able – for maybe the first time ever – to make use of the fact that his father-in-law is a linguist! Usually you want your relatives to have useful jobs, like doctor, attorney, surgeon, car mechanic, drug lord, or at least something that can either help you make money or save it. Sadly, “my father-in-law is a linguist carries no weight whatsoever.

Except on this one occasion.

My first port of call was the OED, although I was pretty sure that because this was said in the context of an army insult, either the word or its meaning was unlikely to be there. And sure enough, it wasn’t. The OED has chode as a “strong past tense” of the word chide, and the form choad doesn’t even appear. So this was clearly more likely to be found in the Urban Dictionary.

Both chode and choad appear as variants of the one word. More importantly, the word has TWO meanings. The first is “a penis thicker than it is long,” and the second is “the area of skin between the anus and the base of the scrotum.” The latter is referred to technically as the perineum. And as to the former definition, I didn’t try to verify its anatomical accuracy – feel free to do your own Google image search.

The more common spelling is chode, with 2,2oo,ooo ghits; the choad spelling only gets some 233,000. I propose that the choad option came about because of the similarity with the word toad and the physical similarity between the said amphibian and a penis – especially a small, fat one.

As an aside, on Peter Gabriel’s 1992 Us album, he has a track called “Kiss That Frog,” which is a not-so-subtle reference to oral sex: “Kiss that frog, and he’s going to be your prince.” And if you’ve never read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment – a Freudian analysis of fairy stories, including The Frog Prince – you really do owe it to yourself to order a copy right now. Trust me, it’s well worth the read!

But wait, there’s more!

Some folks have suggested that the word is related to the Gujurati verb chodana meaning to fuck, with choda being the past participle form, fucked. There’s also the Persian word choda meaning god, although this is probably just coincidental. However, I thought it was worth pointing this out if only because I find it funny.

Suffice to say that as far as my son-in-law goes, I opted for simply telling him that the chances are his sergeant was calling him a dick.

And who say linguistics is boring!

2 Comments

Filed under Etymology